Capitol Recap: Music Midtown cancels and a debate begins on Georgia gun law

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

Democrats slam Republican law as detrimental to economy

Democrats seized on organizers’ decision to cancel this year’s Music Midtown festival, which was expected to bring tens of thousands of people to Piedmont Park and some say as much as $50 million in economic impact.

While festival organizers declined to comment on why they shelved the event, multiple officials familiar with the cancellation cited potential legal problems tied to an expansion of gun rights that became state law in 2014.

Music Midtown, which began in 1994, typically bans weapons “of any kind” from being brought into the park.

But the 2014 law allows guns at public parks, and a recent court ruling determined that the holders of short-term leases do not have the legal ability to ban firearms.

For years, it was unclear whether the law applied to private events held on public property. But a 2019 Georgia Supreme Court ruling — and an appellate court ruling earlier this year upholding that decision — made it more difficult for private groups to restrict guns from short-term events on public land.

The event’s organizers were concerned they could face a lawsuit from gun owners if they put firearms restrictions in place, two officials with direct knowledge of the decision told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

They were also worried that some artists would refuse to perform if weapons were permitted, one of the officials said.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and her allies quickly went on offense, blaming Republicans for costing the city a premier event.

And they took their criticism beyond the 2014 law to include a measure the Republican-led General Assembly approved this year allowing Georgians to carry concealed handguns without first getting a license from the state.

“Brian Kemp’s dangerous and extreme gun agenda endangers the lives of Georgians, and the cancellation of Music Midtown is proof that his reckless policies endanger Georgia’s economy as well,” Abrams said in a statement.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall responded that Abrams’ “doomsday rhetoric” falls flat when contrasted with job growth and investment on the governor’s watch.

“Abrams’ schtick about Kemp costing Georgia’s economy has been proven wrong at every turn,” he said.

State Rep. Rick Jasperse, a Jasper Republican who sponsored the 2014 law, defended the measure, saying it was designed with public safety in mind.

He said those intent on “causing chaos and crime in Georgia” won’t care if the festival bans firearms and would try to bring them in regardless.

“Good Georgians who can qualify for a permit and carry a weapon do so to protect themselves from that element in our society,” he said.

Although a permit is no longer required.

Credit: Arvin Temkar / AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar / AJC

Ethics commission deals setback to groups that backed Abrams in 2018

Two organizations that supported Democrat Stacey Abrams’ run for governor in 2018 are now headed for an administrative court after the state ethics commission determined they likely violated state campaign finance disclosure laws.

The two groups are the New Georgia Project, a voter registration organization that Abrams founded, and the affiliated New Georgia Project Action Fund. An ethics complaint alleges that they raised $4 million and spent $3 million without registering as independent political committees and publicly disclosing the money.

Under Georgia law, groups advocating for candidates must disclose contributions and expenditures on a regular basis.

The commission’s staff says the groups hired canvassers, passed out literature, promoted Abrams and other candidates, and solicited contributions.

Abrams is running in a rematch against Republican Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated her four years ago.

The next step in the ethics process is an administrative law hearing. A judge will then make a recommendation. The commission can then accept the judge’s recommendation or hold its own hearing. If the groups lose, based on the amounts of money involved, they could face the largest ethics fine in state history.

The groups’ lawyer, Aria C. Branch, told the commission that the nonprofits’ donations were not meant for political activity and were used for operating expenses.

The canvassing, the groups said, was done as a subcontractor for another pro-Abrams political committee and not subject to disclosure by the New Georgia Project Action Fund. Those expenditures were disclosed by the political committee that hired the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

As nonprofits, Branch said, the primary purpose of the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund is not influencing election outcomes and the groups are not required to file state paperwork to report contributions and expenditures.

But a commission lawyer and commission members said if the groups spent money promoting Abrams and other Democratic candidates, they were still required to file disclosures.

Commission lawyer Joe Cusack showed photos of door hangers the canvassers handed out in 2018 promoting candidates. The door hangers said they were paid for by the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

The investigation began in 2019 after the commission hired David Emadi, a former Douglas County prosecutor and Kemp donor, to become the commission’s executive secretary.

Under Emadi, the commission began looking into whether Abrams’ campaign illegally coordinated its efforts with nonprofits, and he quickly began issuing subpoenas seeking bank records and other documents from Abrams’ campaign and affiliated groups.

Many of the questions Emadi raised came out of campaign report audits that commission staffers did under his predecessor. Some staffers had accused the previous executive director of sitting on the findings.

Credit: File photos

Credit: File photos

Walker says he’ll debate, and this time he sets a date

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker has said repeatedly that he would debate Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock “any day of the week.”

After months of hedging, producing pressure from other Republicans and mocking from Democrats over his refusal to make a commitment, Walker has settled on a day and a place: Oct. 14 in Savannah.

Walker, who skipped debates with other Republican candidates ahead of the GOP primary — and has often limited his media access to outlets he considered friendly — announced on Fox News that he was ready for a faceoff with Warnock.

“This debate is going to be about the people. It’s not about some political party. It’s not about the press,” Walker said. “But the people need to see the differences between Sen. Warnock and Herschel Walker.”

His campaign said the event would be hosted by WSAV, and Walker added that it wouldn’t involve the “media elite.”

The proposed October debate would include a panel featuring Russ Spencer from Fox 5 and Tina Tyus-Shaw from WSAV.

Warnock, who held a slight lead in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s latest poll, accepted invitations weeks ago from WTOC in Savannah, Mercer University in Macon and the Atlanta Press Club to participate in debates. It’s not clear whether those will happen, although Warnock’s campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, said the Democrat “remains committed to debating Herschel Walker and giving Georgians three opportunities to see the clear choice about who is ready to represent Georgia.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Senate hopeful’s expenses, including payments to Trump resort, draw scrutiny

It’s usually donations that draw attention when campaign finance reports come out, but Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s expenses are worth a look.

Walker has dropped close to $200,000 on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. He paid $64,152 in April for a golf fundraiser at the Palm Beach, Florida, resort.

But the big expense was $135,314 he spent on catering for an event there in December. The hors d’oeuvres must have been pretty tasty: Walker’s campaign said it pulled in $1.3 million in contributions.

Robert Maguire, research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the use of Mar-a-Lago by Walker and other Republican candidates raises questions.

“This is a new phenomenon where you have candidates intentionally spending large amounts of money in order to curry favor with the standard-bearer of the party,” Maguire said.

“It has elements of ‘pay to play’ where you pay fealty to the head of the party,” he said.

Another notable Walker expense was the more than $5,600 that the campaign paid to rent rooms and venues at the Georgian Terrace in Atlanta and the DeSoto Hotel in Savannah.

Both are owned by Sotherly Hotels, a Williamsburg, Va.-based real estate investment trust that paid Walker $13,625 as a member of its board of directors.

It’s legal for a candidate to pay a company in which he has a financial interest, Maguire said, as long as the campaign is paying market value.

That apparently happened at the DeSoto, where expenses seemed roughly in line with the rates posted online.

At the Georgian Terrace, where Walker held his victory party after winning the GOP primary, he spent $3,566. The Georgian Terrace’s website did not list rates for renting event space, and a call to the hotel went unreturned.

But the part that catches the eye was the $50 apiece that the campaign paid for lodging. Online, the lowest rate for a “petite” room was listed at $184.

An aide said the Walker campaign paid market rate.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Judge sides against Clyde in suit challenging metal detector fines

A U.S. district judge ruled against U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Athens, meaning the congressman is subject to thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to pass through metal detectors set up outside the House chamber.

Clyde and two other House Republicans, U.S. Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit in June 2021 challenging the fines they faced for not complying with security procedures House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put in place following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Democrats, as the majority party, voted in fines for House members who refused to submit to a scan or walk through a metal detector: $5,000 for a first offense and $10,000 for each offense that followed.

Clyde and Gohmert were the first to be cited under that new policy.

Judge Timothy Kelly of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia dismissed the suit, ruling that the fines were allowed because the House has wide freedom to set its own rules.

Another judge made a similar ruling in a lawsuit brought by Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and others challenging fines they received after violating masking requirements on the House floor during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

She and her co-plaintiffs have filed an appeal that is pending.

While the House’s masking requirements have since been lifted, the metal detectors are still in use any time members are on the floor for votes.



Kemp extends suspension of gas tax

Gov. Brian Kemp once again extended the suspension of the state sales tax on motor fuel, this time until Sept. 12.

The General Assembly voted in March to suspend the tax of 29.1 cents per gallon of gasoline through the end of May. Kemp, who is up for reelection, has issued executive orders each month since then to continue the pause on the tax, garnering new headlines every time.

The extensions cost the state roughly $150 million a month in tax revenue that’s used to pay for transportation projects, such as road construction and bridge maintenance. Kemp’s office has tapped the state’s surplus to fill the gap in funding.

Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is running against Kemp, has called on the governor to go further by suspending the tax through the end of the year.

Meanwhile, gas prices have been dropping in recent weeks, although some economists are concerned that could change.

This past week, the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. was $4.19, according to AAA. In Georgia, the price was $3.74, down from $4.33 a month earlier.

Political expedience

  • Pension plunge: Fiscal 2022 was a hard year for the Teachers Retirement System, the pension program for 400,000 public educators and retirees in Georgia. This spring’s steep decline in the stock market was met by a $15 billion plunge in the system’s assets to about $87 billion. That followed a booming fiscal 2021, the best year for the TRS since 1986, when assets climbed from $81.2 billion to $102.2 billion. Buster Evans, executive director of the pension system, said gains since the fiscal year ended June 30 had brought the TRS’ assets back up 5.45% as of this past week. At the end of fiscal 2022, almost 130,000 retirees were receiving an average of about $42,000 a year in pension benefits.
  • Less potent pot punishment: The Athens-Clarke County Commission voted to decriminalize marijuana, setting a fine for possession under an ounce at $35. A dozen other Georgia communities have similar ordinances.
  • Push for postponement on student debt: Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, Lucy McBath of Marietta and Nikema Williams of Atlanta were among more than 100 Democratic members of Congress who signed onto a letter urging President Joe Biden to extend a pause on federal student loan repayments beyond the end of this month. Biden already postponed the repayments once before they were scheduled to expire in April.

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